The Alfred Hitchcock Project #4: Downhill (1927)
Downhill (aka When Boys Leave Home, 1927)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by Michael Balcon (1, 2, 3), C.M. Woolf (3)
Based on the play Down Hill by Constance Collier and Ivor Novello (under the pseudonym Julian L’Estrange)
Adapted by Eliot Stannard (1, 2, 3)
Cinematography by Claude L. McDonnell
Edited by Ivor Montagu (3), Lionel Rich
Distributed by Woolf & Freedman (UK), Sono Art-World Wide Pictures (US)
(1:45, 2012 restoration) Criterion Blu-ray supplement on The Lodger
At the time, Downhill was Alfred Hitchcock’s longest movie and it often feels like it. Hitchcock uncharacteristically lingers on many scenes long after they have served their purpose, yet he also experiments (quite successfully) in other scenes, giving us a film resulting in equal parts frustration and fascination.
An early title card reads, “Here is a tale of two school-boys who made a pact of loyalty. One of them kept it - at a price.” I was a bit surprised to find a Hitchcock movie opening with a rugby game at an English boarding school. (It wasn’t like I was expecting the film to open at the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore, or anything, but it was a surprise.)
Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello, whom we saw previously in The Lodger) is not only the school’s rugby hero, he’s also set to become the Captain of the school. Roddy’s best friend Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine, below right) is also seeking greatness in the form of a hoped-for scholarship to Oxford.
Shortly after the rugby victory, Tim eagerly awaits an assignation with a waitress named Mabel (Annette Benson), with Roddy tagging along. The boys take turns dancing with Mabel, and it seems she is more interested in Roddy than Tim, but the evening concludes without incident.
The real incident awaits Roddy and Tim later when they’re called to the school headmaster’s office. Mabel states that one of the boys took advantage of her and she’s bringing charges. And she points the finger. At Roddy.
It is here that the title card comes into play. Tim is the one who took advantage of (a nice way of saying "got her pregnant" in 1927 parlance) Mabel, but if he confesses, he forfeits his chance to attend Oxford. Roddy decides to stick to his pact of loyalty and take the fall for Tim. (What a guy!) Or perhaps Mabel knows that Roddy's family has more money, the better to buy her off...
Even in 1927, Roddy's decision had to have had audiences shaking their heads in disbelief. But the film provides some interesting (if not familiar, after nearly 100 years’ worth of movies) scenes and tropes, including Roddy's being disowned by an angry father (Norman McKinnel), falling for an actress, hitting the skids, mixing with the wrong crowd, and more.
In the midst of what were probably familiar tropes even to 1927 audiences, Hitchcock does have a few tricks up his sleeve, including some interesting work with shadows and an interesting delirium/dream sequence containing no camera dissolves, but rather superimposed and blurred images, all done quite effectively. Hitchcock also uses a minimum of title cards throughout the film, relying on the audience to keep up with limited textual assistance.
Hitchcock himself, speaking in Hitchcock/Truffaut, states that the play Downhill was based on (co-written by the leading man Ivor Novello) was never very good to begin with. I haven’t read enough yet to know why Hitchcock chose to film it, other than the fact that Downhill is a “wrong man” story, a theme we will see explored many more times in the rest of the director’s filmography.
Downhill is far from a waste of time, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase it. Thankfully it’s included on the recent Criterion Blu-ray of The Lodger as one of the disc’s supplements. So in the spirit of the opening rugby game, take it outside, kick it around, and see what you think.
Photos: IMDb, DVD Beaver, Beyond Boundaries, Cinema of the World